It’s easy to forget in the endless parade of reboots, revivals, and sequels that Hollywood does still have some new stories to tell. When I walked out of Hidden Figures I was inspired, but I was also a little frustrated that it took this long for me to be aware of the important work done by Katherine Johnson, Dorothy Vaughn, and Mary Jackson at NASA. I guess better late than never, but it shows the need for digging a little deeper to find more original content and perspectives. There are lots of interesting and important stories to be told when you are willing to widen your search and seek out different perspectives.
Hidden Figures is a crowd-pleasing film about the adversity that these three women (and others faced) and their critical contributions to NASA in general and sending astronaut John Glenn into orbit specifically. Katherine Goble Johnson (Taraji P. Henson) is a gifted mathematician who is assigned to team that will calculate the launch coordinates and trajectory for Glenn’s mission. She does not receive a warm welcome from her white male colleagues, especially Paul Stafford (Jim Parsons), and has a no-nonsense boss (Kevin Costner). Mary Jackson (Janelle Monáe) is greeted more warmly by the engineers that she works with, but cannot become an engineer herself because the classes she needs are taught at an all-white school that she is prohibited from attending. Dorothy Vaughn (Octavia Spencer) does the work of a supervisor, without the title or pay that she deserves (and has repeatedly requested). With the arrival of IBM computers, her entire department is in jeopardy of being eliminated. All three women are ambitious, talented, and smart, but their gender and race deny them the opportunity to reach their full potential or receive the respect that they deserve.
It’s no surprise with a cast like this assembled that the performances are uniformly good. The movie tends to focus more on Katherine’s story, which allows Henson a chance to shine and show a different side of herself to those who are mainly familiar with her work as Cookie on Empire. Katherine is a more reserved character; gone is the flamboyance that is so fun to watch on Empire. When Henson finally has her big moment, it not only feels satisfying but also earned. Spencer and Monáe shine in their slightly reduced roles; I’m of course well aware of how great Spencer is in pretty much everything, but the last few months I’ve been really impressed with Monáe’s work. Her first two roles in front of the camera (Hidden Figures and Moonlight) demonstrate that she’s not only a talented singer, but has a real future as an actress. All three of these characters have different approaches to dealing with the roadblocks that are put in their way, which makes for a more interesting movie and is more truthful in it does not present a cookie-cutter approach to solving these problems. While Mary Jackson turned to the court system for assistance, Dorothy Vaughn instead looked to the future and prepared herself and others for the new way that NASA would be doing business. Different methods for different problems.
The narrative of Hidden Figures is inspiring, but also somewhat predictable. There are not a ton of surprises in this movie; the eventual resolution to most problems is self-evident. Watching everything play out is still entertaining, but Hidden Figures is not a very complex movie. This is a cursory telling, at best, of what these women experienced. On the one hand, I appreciate that the story and struggle are somewhat streamlined so that the movie will appeal to a larger audience – especially children – and therefore more people will learn about Johnson, Jackson, and Vaughn and their accomplishments. On the other hand, I couldn’t help but feeling like this was a very Disney-fied telling of the narrative and that there was a lot of depth and nuance missing. The simpler storytelling makes for a feel-good movie, but I’m always a lot more comfortable when a movie delves more into the shades of grey or that has a little more substance. I enjoyed Hidden Figures but given my tastes I would have enjoyed a more multifaceted story even more.
Even with the limitations of Hidden Figures, it is still an important movie to watch and I recommend that people take their kids to see it, especially their daughters. The women featured in the film did impressive things and were critical to many of NASA accomplishments, so it’s about time that they get their due and their trailblazing efforts were singled out for recognition. When you see any footage of the early NASA launches, it’s always a room full of white guys in the control room. They should be praised for their work as well, obviously, but Hidden Figures expands the picture a bit to show that there were women and people of color who also played critical roles. The acting is great and Hidden Figures is definitely a heart-warming movie that also inspires. Hopefully Katherine Johnson, Mary Jackson, and Dorothy Vaughn will become household names along with John Glenn. They’ve earned it.